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Benefiting Students & Teachers

The Indiana Robotics Educators Program

Editor’s note: in our July-August “ Grassroots Robotics” column (issue no. 11), we reported on the expansion of robotics in high schools in Indiana. You can read that article, with additional material and pictures, at www.botmag.com. In programs spearheaded over three years by Dan Ward and funded by taxpayer dollars, approximately 600 teachers were given free VEX robots, workshops and curricula. This important program simultaneously builds the hobby-robotics market, and we revisit it in this issue—this time, from the perspective of high school teacher Doug Porter. He attended his second workshop in the program developed by the Indiana Robotics Educators (IRE) and he shares the experience with us here.

As a teacher, I get advertisements for education workshops all of the time. Last year, a flyer from the Indiana Robotics Educators (IRE) instantly grabbed my attention. The IRE offered a free, three-day robotics workshop for 7th through 12th-grade teachers. Participants would be given a $300 VEX Robotics starter kit, Autodesk Inventor software and teaching materials to take back to the classroom plus training to tie these all together. I couldn’t pass up the chance of a free robot, so I immediately signed up. I was not disappointed. The IRE workshop was even better than I hoped it would be. When I received this year’s invitation to a follow-up workshop for teachers, I didn’t waste any time getting my application turned in.

Most impressive about these workshops is that the two-year program is well thought out and so well orchestrated that the program could work for any teacher who wants to involve students in robotics.

The IRE program’s success is the result the hard work of the IRE team led by Dan Ward and the Indiana Department of Workplace Development (IDWD). Ward is the Design Technology Program Chairman at Ivy Tech Community College in Kokomo, Indiana, and his team consists of several other Ivy Tech professors/robotics mentors: Kyle Wiley, Steven Bardonner and Luke Ward with help from Purdue University student and robotics coach, Kyle Love. With IDWD support, Dan and his team have built the Indiana Robotics Educator program over the last three years. For more information about the Indiana Robotics Educators and their work to make Indiana a robotics powerhouse, see the recent article in the EduBots section of the July-August 2008 issue of Robot.

THE IRE WORKSHOP’S FIRST YEAR

So, let’s say you’re a teacher, a parent, or a student and would like to start a robotics club in your area. How do you start? To help answer that question, I’ll give you an overview of the IRE’s two-year plan that Dan followed to get hundreds of teachers and thousands of Indiana students started in robotics. IRE and IDWD are striving to fill the desperate need for high-quality STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in the workforce. Another objective is to give teachers a solid, hands-on experience with robotics so that they will be better prepared to take the fun of robotics back to their classrooms.

Teachers attending a workshop have differing levels of knowledge and experience. The IRE mentors quickly make everyone feel comfortable and, after introductions, they begin with an overview of robotics. Teachers get hands-on robotics experience by opening the big white boxes containing the VEX kits. The kit includes a construction manual that is divided into sections covering structure, motion, power, sensors, control, logic and programming. Through the step-by-step process of building a VEX robot, teachers work together to learn about the robots’ systems and parts.

CHOOSING A ROBOTICS SYSTEM

Flip through any issue of Robot magazine, and you’ll see many types of robot. Their prices range from a few hundred dollars to well over a thousand. What makes a good starter robot for your new robot team? Many do, but Dan and his team prefer the VEX system for the Indiana Robotics Educators workshops. One of its advantages is that it can be used as a radio-controlled (RC) system. And an RC system doesn’t require programming knowledge to get started. Programming a new robotics system can be the most intimidating part. With the VEX system, you can comfortably design, build and even compete with just the RC mode. When you and your students become more familiar with the system and want to learn how to use all the sensors, you can start programming.

We spent the rest of the first day building and testing the VEX robot using the RC system. This may sound easy, but for teachers who have never touched or assembled a robot, putting one together from a box filled with nuts and bolts, metal rails and lots of parts with wires hanging out can be intimidating. Using a team approach, teachers help one another and are soon tightening bolts, plugging motors into controllers and having a great time.

The second day’s mission is for the teachers to program their robots to travel through a maze. Teams use easyC by Intelitek to program their robots. easyC is one of the C-based programs that can be used to program the VEX system. It uses a drag-and-drop programming interface while displaying the C language commands. This allows the teachers to pick up the basics of programming quickly. For this mission, only motor commands were used to negotiate the maze. Motor commands can control the direction, speed and length of time each motor runs. After many attempts and many adjustments, by the end of day, the teams had successfully completed their mission.

As part of their workshop outcomes, teachers attending an IRE workshop must have a student team compete in at least one IRE-sponsored competition during the school year. The IRE competitions— known as “one-kit competitions”— are free and require only one VEX starter kit. The competition rules are easy to learn, and the games are cleverly designed and very competitive. Four robots compete at one time and are divided into two alliances of two teams each—a red alliance and a blue alliance. The competitions all differ, but they typically require a team to collect objects such as tennis balls, marbles, or racket balls and put them into goals. Even though each team is allowed only one VEX kit, it’s amazing to see the students’ creative and radically different robot designs using one kit. At a typical IRE competition, there are 60 to120 teams, and although there may be some similarities, every robot is unique and uses different design concepts and strategies to compete.

IRE competitions are complete chaotic fun. Imagine 120 teams—hundreds of teachers, students and parents—gathered around six competition tables with 24 robots going at one time. The noise and excitement is like being ringside at a boxing match. Even more unbelievable is that all teams complete seven seeding matches and final rounds in just one day of nonstop action. Some teams can’t get enough and participate in several competitions across the state during the year.

For teachers who don’t have programs such as IRE, the competitions can also be run in classrooms using simple materials. VisualEdge offers several useful prepackaged games. Their kits contain everything you need to run a robot competition. Using one robot or several going head-to-head is an exciting way to test designs and develop robotics skills. You’ll find more information about the VisualEdge kits at www.vexrobotics.com/vex-robotics-gamein-a-box.shtml or www.visualedgeinc.biz.

Another option for teams is the Vex Robotics Competition—an international event in which teams can start with one or two basic VEX starter kits. Registration costs $75 and $25 for each additional team from the same school. Registration and VEX Robotic Competition information can be found at www.robotevents.com.

Can a new team be successful in a regional or world tournament? According to Jed Wandland, who coaches the Zionsville, Indiana, Community High School robotics team, new teams can be very successful. Jed attended his first IRE workshop last year and took two teams to the IRE-sponsored regional VEX Bridge Battle tournament in Indianapolis. One of his teams won the regional tournament and both teams qualified for the inaugural VEX World Championship at California State University Northridge, in Los Angeles, as did seven other IRE-trained coaches’ teams. This vividly demonstrates the efficacy of the IRE program. The Zionsville teams placed as high as 14th in an international field of over 90 teams. For more information about the World VEX Championships, see the September-October 2008 issue of Robot.

On the last day, teachers work together to design and reconfigure their VEX robots into more advanced competition robots. Every team must follow the rules and guidelines set for a real tournament. Teams design and engineer their robots and build, test and redesign them until they have a robot that they think will succeed. This process could take school teams weeks to complete. Teachers experience firsthand the frustration that comes when an idea they spent hours designing and building doesn’t work. Fortunately, the Vex parts can easily be disassembled and rebuilt many times.

At the end of the day, teams engage in a series of matches until the champions emerge from the fray. The racers looked serious and raced to make changes between matches; they were totally into the IRE competition spirit.

YEAR 2 IRE ROBOTICS WORKSHOP

Instead of a VEX robot, second-year teachers are given add-on kits to improve their robot designs. Kits include a VEX sensor package, a programming kit and an advanced gear kit. As a returning teacher with one year of IRE robotics experience, I was ready to take my VEX robot to new heights (I can dream, can’t I?). The focus of the second-year workshop is to give teachers more experience with sensors and easyC programming. The programming kits include a copy of easyC and a special download cable needed to program the VEX system. I’ve used other C programming software packages, but easyC really does make it easier to program. A sevenday trial copy of easyC can be downloaded from:

www.intelitek.com/ProductDetails.asp?Product_ID=369&CategoryID=21&Ind ustrial=&Education=yes&category_str_id=.

For programming kits for the VEX system, go to:

www.vexrobotics.com/vex-robotics-easyC-programmingkit.shtml.

The kits cost $99.99 and site licenses, and you’ll also find other software packages at this site.

The second-year workshop was instructed by Luke Ward, Dan’s brother. Luke and Dan make a great team, and their combined talents are, in large part, what make the IRE program successful. Luke is an Ivy Tech Visual Communications professor and experienced FIRST Robotics competitor and mentor as are the other team members. On the first day, he guided us through the engineering design process and gave us pointers on what makes a successful robot design. To me, Luke’s lesson on mechanisms was most beneficial. If you were the type of kid who played with Erector Sets and toy trains or liked to tear broken appliances apart, you would probably be surprised by how many simple mechanisms you already know. Luke’s presentation is unique. His animations, images and real-world examples of how each mechanism could be used in a robotics system are extremely helpful. His examples and suggestions will definitely show up in robot designs this year. Luke’s lesson also covered gearing; he specifically focused on the uses of spur, worm, bevel and rack and pinion gears. He also discussed chains and sprockets, tank tracks, linkages and pneumatics.

We spent the final two days of the workshop getting more experience using easyC programming. It didn’t take us long to feel comfortable with it. The drag-and-drop commands and being able to see the C programming text generated is a great feature for someone who’s making the transition between graphics programs such as the Lego Mindstorms NXT-G and C-based robotics programming. With easyC we learned how to test and configure all the sensors in the VEX sensor package kit in a variety of different situations, and we then wrote programs using the different sensors to control our robots. The VEX starter kit comes with only two touch sensors— a bumper and a limit switch. The sensor package adds a light sensor, infrared (IR) line-tracking sensors, an ultrasonic sensor used to determine distances and optical shaft encoders to measure axle rotations.

Like the first-year participants, secondyear teachers are also required to have a team compete in an IRE tournament. To help teachers and their students use their new programming skills, IRE competitions also have autonomous programming challenges. Last year was the first year for the autonomous IRE challenges. They were simple and didn’t make use of many of the sensors, but Luke promised us that future competitions would push the use of programming and sensors more. In fact, in one of their upcoming competitions, they will have a team RC game, an autonomous challenge and a design challenge. The VEX World Championships will also have an autonomous programmed portion in its events this season.

I’m looking forward to programming my VEX system. With just two days at the IRE workshop, I feel confident that I can now use all of the sensors that come with the VEX sensor kit. With Luke’s presentations and images, I think I will also be much more effective at teaching my students how to use them, too.

THE RESULTS

How well has the IRE program worked in Indiana? Dan says that approximately 85 percent of all IRE-trained teachers go on to compete with a team at an IRE tournament. That success rate makes the IRE workshops a highly successful educational program. Dan also says that approximately 150 robots were given to teachers last year. Over the year, hundreds of teams participated in IRE competitions, and Indiana schools bought hundreds of additional VEX robots. This means that thousands of students are getting hands-on experience and learning important technical skills with robots in Indiana.

Dan went on to say that if you look at the list of top FIRST LEGO league teams (FLL) in the nation, you’ll see that Indiana teams have won several times. When you look at the top FIRST teams in the nation, Indiana teams are there. At the 2008 VEX World Championships, Indiana teams made their presence known. Out of the 90 teams competing in LA, nine were from Indiana. Dan says, “When teams show up at robotics competitions, whether they are FLL, FRC, or VEX, they know that Indiana teams deserve respect. Indiana has become a powerhouse in robotics competition.”

Part of the credit for this also goes to the Indiana Department of Workplace Development. The IDWD has provided funding for Indiana FIRST teams for many years and has been the major funding source for the Indiana Robotics Educator workshops. Because the IRE workshops have been so successful in getting teachers and students involved with STEM activities, the IDWD has agreed to continue funding for the project. This means that Indiana will continue to be a robotics powerhouse and will continue to produce students who are interested and able to fill STEM jobs in the future.

After the workshop, I spoke with Zionsville coach, Jed Wandland. He says that he “… can’t wait for this [school] year to start …” because there are so many things he wants to do and so many ideas he wants to try with his robotics team. How often are teachers that excited to get back to school? As I looked around at the smiling faces of the teachers leaving the workshop, each holding a new VEX robot, it was obvious that many felt the same way as Jed.

Links

IFI Robotics

www.ifirobotics.com, (903) 453-0802

Intelitek

www.intelitek.com

Robot Events

www.robotevents.com

VEX Robotics Design System

www.vexrobotics.com, (903) 453-0802

VisualEdge Inc.

www.visualedgeinc.biz (765) 319-3257